February 2008

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2008 JF


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Tour of Beth Am Israel synagogue.
Teen Voice

Walking the Walk
Teens share dreams and recognition across faiths.

-- Hannah Weilbacher

A massive church basement with bright fluorescent lighting and a smattering of folding chairs and tables accommodates a small circle of teenagers who are feeling slightly awkward but anticipating the activities of the day with excitement. A few adults walk around facilitating discussions and projects, but everyone knows today is all about us: the teens. To a stranger, the picture may have looked a little weird: together in one room were roughly 20 kids, from Main Line boys and girls (clad in typical Main Line attire, complete with Tiffany & Co bracelets), to black kids from the city (each wearing something different, but all fairly urban), to Muslim girls and boys. The Muslim girls all wore head coverings and dresses that completely covered their bodies, embellished with pins or jewelry to express individuality.

At this session we talked about helping those in need and how our three religions- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- feel about charity and giving to the less fortunate. In addition, we all shared religious objects that are significant to us. Topping off the day was an elaborate art project using those religious objects and a plethora of glitter, fabric, tissue paper, and other nifty craft items. We timidly and self-consciously explained why the objects were important to us, but as the day went on we found ourselves giggling --even laughing-- together when we fumbled over a word in a discussion or got glitter all over our shirts.

Making blankets for babies living at People’s Emergency Center (PEC).

This revolutionary program, Walking the Walk, is a program for teens that builds these beautiful interfaith bonds. It is a program of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia started in 2006. The program's goal is to establish good relationships between religions and cultures in order to make our community safer and more accepting. Teenagers hold meaningful conversations to learn about religions and the problems they raise, do community service together, and create art that expresses themselves. This builds trust and understanding among not only the individuals, but the faiths as a whole.

The teens involved in the program (myself included) are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Together we engage in an array of activities that show us how alike we, and our religions, really are. Many of our sessions are devoted to talking about the shared values between our religions, and what our religions have in common. Not only do we learn about each other's faiths and practices, but we also participate in community service projects together, acknowledging that all three religions care about the betterment of the community. My group's community service project is Books Through Bars, a remarkable organization which brings books and other educational materials to inmates all over the country so that they can make something out of their lives once they get out of jail. Inmates send letters telling us about their situation and what they want to do to change their lives, and we send them what they need. Participating in this service makes me and my group members, feel like we are truly changing someone's life, or at least making someone's day. All of the teens here, no matter their race or religion or socio-economic background, are working towards a common goal together. This is just one way Walking the Walk brings diverse kids together. Walking the Walk is founded on the knowledge that while we are different, we still can work together to show the world that stereotypes mean practically nothing.

Packaging meals for homebound.

For so long, our post-9/11 society has been focused on the differences between religions and cultures, especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Too many people focus on why we are different, what makes them worse than us, why we shouldn't interact with them, and so on and so on. But why do we need to feel like we are so different? Why do stereotypes tell us that just because some people did bad things, all people of their faith are bad as well? And why does the bigot deep down in all of us (yes, it's in there somewhere) tell us that we never mess up, we never commit horrible acts, we are always in the right?

Today more than ever it is more important to look past the stereotypes and push past our fears that are rooted in them. The truth is that we are all just people. It is extremely critical to engage in interfaith work to be able to step back and realize that "they" really are not so different.

It is crucial to target young adults and teens with these thoughts. Kids my age are being incessantly bombarded with labels and stereotypes to call people unlike themselves. Of course, the media makes things worse by showing kids only the extremes of different cultures. The media is bursting with websites, videos, cartoons, movies, and television shows that exhibit these stereotypes, constantly feeding our fertile young minds with thoughts about how all Muslims are, how all black kids are, even how all Jews are. The days of "look at his frizzy brown hair and gigantic nose! What a Jew," are not nearly over. Change starts from the bottom up, and my generation is most definitely at the bottom of this totem-pole of a world. With my generation being taught that together we can, no matter how cliché, make a difference, the world is already starting to change before our very eyes.

Questions and Answer Session with an Imam, a Rabbi and a Minister.

While Walking the Walk is still a relatively small project, it is making a difference. Maybe it is not a difference in the whole world yet, but at least our community and the lives of every teen involved are affected. The life lessons it teaches are priceless, and the bonds that are made not only between the teens, but between the faiths, are irreplaceable. It is strengthening interfaith relationships while promoting more understanding between faiths. Our individual identities are strengthened as well, as we learn more about ourselves and what it means to be a religious teen in this time. We find that there is no reason to cause problems with people just because they are different. What is gained by shutting out a race or culture that you believe is "wrong" or "weird"? Nothing. You do, however, lose out on potentially life-changing relationships and ideas.

The experiences provided by Walking the Walk are, slowly but surely, paving the way for a brighter, more tolerant, future.

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